The year I was a junior at a well known Catholic girls’ high school was the year the National Legion of Decency went from demanding net stoles over the girls’ strapless formals to campaigning for dresses with necklines and sleeves. We juniors laughed ourselves sick at this ludicrous idea but not for long. Before we could say “over my dead body,” the Sisters of the Holy Names had come up with a plan so diabolical while seeming so innocent, that we were hard put to decide if they were stupid or just plain evil. This was it:
We were brought together in the auditorium on Madison Avenue, which was still operating – this was before we built the new school in Slingerlands with our magazine subscription sales. No matter; the purpose of the assembly, we were told was to honor the Mother of God and her Son Jesus, by instituting and maintaining high standards of modesty in both behavior and dress. To this end, one of the Sisters had designed a lovely dress which we would hitherto wear to all formal events held at or sponsored by the school. At this point, a lovely tall senior student walked onstage, modeling the dress. Barbara was 5’8”, weighed 110 pounds and had long, shining brunette hair. We knew what she looked like. We knew she looked gorgeous in our regulation blue gym bloomers and matching camp shirts, in our navy serge uniform suits with the matching navy fedoras and in our starched, white, pleated, belted, long sleeved, high collared white First Friday uniforms with the light blue neckties. In this dress, Beautiful Barbara looked short and dumpy, inconspicuous, unremarkable . beneath notice, not worth a second glance.
The dress was ankle-length, made of stiff white material, slightly sheer, so it required a matching slip. It was embroidered with sprays of white flowers; there were short, set-in puffed sleeves and a Peter Pan collar, eighteen little covered buttons down the pleated bodice and a thin self-belt that tied in back. As Barbara obediently walked and turned to display the limp full skirt, we realized what that dress was doing to our most attractive and could only fear what it would do to us. With one genius design, the good nuns had removed all that was flattering in girls’ clothing and incorporated most of the “must avoid” design elements into one starkly ugly and universally unbecoming garment. It really looked like a short sleeved organdy habit.
No complaints were heard, no gasps acknowledged. This was a done deal and we knew it. We were then herded by class into an adjoining room where our measurements were taken and a dress was ordered for each and every one of us.
They arrived in a few weeks, just in time for the Father-Daughter Dinner and the Junior Ring Ceremony. In a whimsical gesture, we were given satin sashes to wear over one shoulder, like a bandolier, color coded by class. Mine was light blue. OK, we said. That’s OK. It’s school after all.
Not so fast. When Junior Prom time came, the dresses were again obligatory, over our howls and even the howls of our mothers. They wanted us to meet boys and get dates and find rich husbands. No choice was offered, no quarter given. “This is the reason for the dress, girls. The Legion of Decency will be pleased and you should be proud.”
We had barely rebounded from that shot when another hit us from the other side. “Girls!” Mother Superior sang into the microphone onstage. “We have the most exciting plan for your dance.
We’ll invite the boys from CBA and Cranwell. We’ll all make box lunches and auction them off to the boys! Won’t that be fun!” Stunned for the moment, we were all so dejected about the dresses that the box lunch fiasco couldn’t make us feel any worse.
I took some comfort in the fact that one of my very best friends went to CBA and I could probably bully him into getting my lunch. I called him that night; told him what was up; told him I was going to invite him anyway and asked would he please make sure to get my lunch? Prom night, my mother packed chicken salad sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookies into a white shoe box and I tied it with a big blue bow. I showed it to David before the dance, wasn’t sure a simple description would be enough. He came, got the right lunch. The bulk of the time was spent handing out the boxes. We danced a little and I think we had a good time.
I don’t really remember the dance much. I remember David. We were friends from grade school and dated in high school a little, but not much. I remember what a nice person he was, even then, at an age when teenage boys could be so repulsive. I know what a good friend he was to jump to my aid at this damned dance. He is still a good man and a good friend.